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Land Use

Where people meet the land

Land use is what it sounds like—the multitude of different uses to which people put different parcels of land, including such things as agriculture, forestry, urban development, and protections for fish and wildlife. Because land use is influenced by economics, demographics, social values, and natural ecosystem properties, land use information helps to reveal how our activities are both shaped by and impact ecosystems. This people-land relationship is crucial for understanding ecosystem services.

Mapping economic activities in the Appalachians—things such as agriculture, outdoor recreation, forestry, and energy development—against demographic patterns, infrastructure, conservation areas, and ecosystem types can help to reveal how communities and regional populations interact with ecosystems. Agricultural land use, for example, can have both positive and negative effects on soil and water quality, depending on particular practices. Those practices may be determined by farmers’ cultural preferences, wealth, and access to transportation infrastructure and markets. Different land uses can also influence one another in important ways. For example, outdoor recreation in the Appalachians helps drive the development of second homes, increasing both land values and forest fragmentation, which in turn affects additional recreational uses.

Managing these kinds of land use changes through various planning and conservation strategies can make the difference between promoting or impairing the capacities of landscapes to provide ecological services. Conservation and restoration efforts occur both inside and outside of official conservation areas like parks, and they can be difficult to map to particular land uses without additional information. For example, former mine sites in the Appalachians are subject to forest restoration requirements, but different reclamation practices can have different outcomes in terms of forest regrowth, water quality improvement, and the restoration of other ecological functions. Designated conservation areas help protect ecosystem services, but heavy recreational use in these places can compromise the sustainability of some services. In multi-use areas, sustainable harvests of nontimber forest products like wild ginseng may depend on managing land uses as diverse as mountain biking and energy infrastructure development, not to mention the harvesting activities themselves.

Detailed land uses can be difficult and expensive to map, and accurate data are often only available for dominant uses such as agriculture and urban areas. Nonetheless, mapping land use across large landscapes can be a key source of information about ecosystem service use and sustainability, and it has rapidly become a cornerstone for understanding regional ecological change. It is usually at its most useful when paired with additional information about specific economic activities, management practices, and so on.


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